Thais Selling Daughters Into Prostitution : Asia: Practice is common among the poor. But now when girls finish sixth grade, teachers try to intervene.


The snapshots of his prostitute granddaughters at work are pasted prominently at the entrance to the old villager's wooden shack.

The girls, in heavy makeup and miniskirts, strike suggestive poses for the camera: lying seductively on a bed in one and brazenly kissing older, apparently foreign, men in others.

Just a few years ago, in close-knit traditional villages like Seanjai Pattana, parents would have been ashamed that their daughters were off in the big cities sleeping with strangers to support their families.

But 65-year-old Acha's proud display of the photographs shows how times have changed in his remote mountain village 460 miles north of Bangkok, the capital.

Now when girls finish sixth grade, the last mandatory grade in Thailand, teachers go out to try to persuade parents not to sell them into prostitution--at age 11. Authorities send monks into the mountains of the north, where the practice is most common, to counsel parents it is wrong to sell their own flesh and blood.

But Chakrapand Wongburanavart, dean of the faculty of social sciences at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, said the once isolated villagers are increasingly sacrificing their daughters to pay for the luxuries of the modern world.

"This is the shortest way to upgrade their social status," he said. "It's fashionable."

Acha's granddaughters helped pay for the family's new ceramic tile roof with the $1,200 they have sent home since the pair was sold for the equivalent of $200 seven years ago at ages 15 and 16.

That is a huge sum to impoverished farmers in one-room shacks, forced for years to live on what they grew. Now, Acha said, 10 other girls in the village of about a dozen families are working as prostitutes.

Acha has no idea if his granddaughters suffer in the brothel, because the family does not ask. "Nobody talks to them about this," he said.

There are an estimated 2 million prostitutes in Thailand, a nation of about 60 million people. But it is unclear how many were sold by their parents to work in brothels, which are described after police raids as horrifying.

Girls are often chained, beaten, drugged, denied food and raped by pimps before being forced to cater to the lowest rungs of society. Customers rarely use condoms and expose the girls to the AIDS virus.

Some parents are ashamed to admit they sold their daughters to work as sex slaves and insist they thought the girls were going to work as waitresses or maids.

But in a shelter in Chiang Rai, the provincial capital 35 miles to the south, girls rescued from the flesh trade say they believe their parents knew they were headed for the seedy and often dangerous brothels.

The girls are not allowed to talk to journalists. But a shelter worker, Pannipa Phansomboon, quoted some as saying their parents lied about where they were going.

"They trusted their parents, and they sold their own daughters," Pannipa said quietly as the girls sang in the peaceful home of the shelter. "They don't trust their parents anymore."

Aid workers and girls from the villages say the parents are motivated by sheer greed.

"They want to get rich fast. They want all the luxuries, and they want to upgrade their social status," Nidda Puangmang, 18, said bitterly of the parents who sold her many friends into prostitution. "They don't feel anything because it has become so common."

One of her friends, sold at age 11, told her parents on a visit home how much she suffered in the brothel. "They didn't listen," Nidda said. "They just wanted the money."

Nidda is in a U.S.-financed program aimed at annually giving about 1,000 girls skills in health care, gem-cutting, fashion design or computers so they will not be forced into prostitution to support their families.

Chakrapand, who is the director, said counselors have to persuade parents to let their daughters learn skills that will earn them about $200 a month. That is about one-tenth what some prostitutes make.

The counselors first appeal to the parents' morality by showing them a video on the horrors of Thai brothels.

Then they appeal to the parents' pocketbooks, noting the girls might contract AIDS in the brothels and die before securing their parents' future.

Many villagers remain unconvinced.

Leo G. M. Alting Von Geusau, a Dutch anthropologist who has studied Akha villagers for 17 years, said they started selling their daughters for much-needed cash to offset the loss of farmland and to finance the rise in heroin addiction.

"Now, some parents don't care," said Von Geusau.

Aju Jupoh, director of the Assn. for Akha Education and Culture in Thailand, said selling daughters has become so much a part of life in some villages that mothers no longer hope for boys when they get pregnant.

"They are very happy if they get a girl because they can sell it," he said.

A 23-year-old former prostitute, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is sickened by what happens to the region's girls.

Hiding in her wooden hut, where other villagers cannot hear her, she recounted how a woman gained her parents' trust and then invited her to visit a nearby city when she was 11 years old.

There, the woman sold her to a brothel, where she was beaten into having sex with countless men and barred from leaving. "I nearly died," she said. Her father finally rescued her.

Twelve years later, the trauma of those seven months as a prostitute are still with her. She cannot comprehend why other parents would subject their daughters to such cruelty.

"If they knew how bad it was, they would not sell their daughters."

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